A Conversation With Stephen Sanfilippo

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Stephen Sanfilippo. Courtesy photo

Mr. Sanfilippo, a retired professor of maritime history who currently lives in Maine, will bring the songs of the 19th century Sag Harbor and Greenport whalers to the John Jermain Memorial Library during a program titled “How Many a Tale the Music Tells” on April 26. Based on archival research from the journals of the whalers themselves — before the days of the internet — Mr. Sanfilippo will perform songs accompanied by banjo, guitar and concertina. He gave The Sag Harbor Expressa preview of the program.

What can people expect from your performance?

I’ve been performing this kind of music since 1973. I’m putting song into its historic context and I talk about the different men whose journals I found it in. All but one or two were hands on the ships and most of them were from the South Fork and a few from the North Fork. I hope what I present is entertaining, but my principal goal is to be informative and that people gain more appreciation for their local history. The songs of the whale men are really an important part of local history.

What first attracted you to these songs?

I am a native Long Islander, and even though I have lived in many different places, I have been a resident of various towns of Long Island my whole life. I’ll be 70 in September. I’ve always been interested in history, particularly the history of where I’m from. I was in the Navy in Norfolk for 4 years. I was never interested in the pop music teenagers were supposed to listen to. My interests ran to classical music and traditional and historic music. You put my interests together, and I wound up investigating the history of whaling on Long Island, and that led me into the study of the songs and poetry of the people who whaled or eventually fished or who lived and made their living along the shore, mostly in Suffolk County.

Do you have formal musical training?

No, I don’t. My musical training consists of listening to doo-wop music of the 1950s, Frank Sinatra and Russian romantic composers of the late 19th century. I have no musical training, which in a sense is an advantage because I’m hearing and learning the songs in the same process as the whalers, which is to say that many of them did not have formal musical training. It’s amazing how beautifully they wrote. And we’re talking about guys who were just whale hands on a ship — a carpenter, a seaman, a hand, a boy.

Can you give us a description of the music itself?

It’s varied. I’ll be singing a very slow, meditative song about homesickness from Long Island from the journal of Henry A. Harlow of Sag Harbor. It was an English song about 10 years earlier, but he changes the chorus about longing to be on Long Island. Another song is very much up-tempo, very adventurous, and that comes from Captain Sylvester Miller on a whale ship out of Greenport called the Bayard, and that describes the adventure of whaling. There’s a song called “Setting Sail in a Squall” and that comes from the journal of Melvin P. Halsey from Water Mill. It’s up-tempo but not really fast. It actually is a work song, the only shanty I’m doing, and it is descriptive of the work that has to be done on the sails when the ship gets hit suddenly by a very high wind that hits the ship broadside, which could cause it to capsize.

What can people learn about the culture and history of whaling from the songs of the whalers?

I think the main thing people can get from it is that they shouldn’t accept the stereotype of what men who went to sea and who go to sea are like. They are very complex people.

“How Many a Tale the Music Tells” is on Thursday, April 26, at John Jermain Memorial Library from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Advance registration is required and the audience will be limited to 40 people. For more information, call (631) 725-0049. Mr. Sanfilippo will also present a similar program, “Prayers from the Fish’s Belly,” based on poems and hymns from the journals of whalers, at Canio’s Books on Friday, May 4, at 6 p.m.

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